Pete Buttigieg—the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a rising star in Democratic politics—announced Wednesday that he will seek the presidency, joining an increasingly crowded field of candidates looking to challenge Donald Trump in 2020. “We can’t look for greatness in the past,” Buttigieg said in a campaign video released Wednesday morning. “Right now, our country needs a fresh start.”
As former Barack Obama chief strategist David Axelrod, who encouraged Buttigieg to run, put it Wednesday, Buttigieg’s candidacy is the “longest of longshots.” Along with Tulsi Gabbard, the 37-year-old Hawaii congresswoman, he’s by far the youngest candidate in the growing Democratic field, and the least experienced in national politics. As the mayor of South Bend, a small city of just over 100,000 located a couple hours southeast of Chicago, he likely has the lowest national profile of any of the nine aspirants officially seeking the Democratic nomination so far, not to mention the heavy hitters rumored to be waiting in the wings. Working in his favor, on the other hand, is his unique background as a Rhodes scholar, a former naval intelligence officer who served a tour in Afghanistan, and the first openly gay state executive in Indiana. And he’s making his youth part of his pitch to voters: “There’s a new generation of voices emerging in our country,” he said in the campaign video. “There is no ‘again’ in the real world. That’s not a bad thing.”
That message of “intergenerational justice”—of “walking away from the politics of the past”—could appeal to his fellow millennials, who represent the largest voting bloc in the country, and who seem eager to move on from the old-guard political establishment from whence other possible 2020 contenders, like Joe Biden and John Kerry, have sprung. Indeed, the announcement of his candidacy doubled as a kind of generational rallying cry: “If you’re my age or younger,” Buttigieg told The Atlantic in an interview published Wednesday, “you were in high school when the school shootings became widespread. You’re going to be dealing with climate change for most of your adult life in specific, noticeable ways. You’re going to be dealing with the consequences of what they’ve done to the debt. You’re on track to be the first generation ever to make less than your parents, unless something changes, and your generation furnished most of the troops for the post-9/11 wars. It just gives you a very different relationship to political decision-makers and decision-making.”
Buttigieg will need to make up a lot of ground very quickly to have a real shot at the Democratic nod, as his competitors with bigger names and bigger pocketbooks make their pitch to their own key constituencies. Bernie Sanders, who mounted a formidable challenge to Hillary Clinton last cycle, appears poised to jump back into the ring, this time with a greater focus on the South, where he fared poorly in 2016. Elizabeth Warren, perhaps the highest-profile Democrat to officially join the race so far, has hit the ground running, appearing in the early-primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, which she will visit this week, as well as Puerto Rico, where she mocked Trump’s “dumb” wall plan and reamed his administration for its handling of Hurricane Maria. And Michael Bloomberg, the wealthy former New York mayor, tacked to the center with comments this week in favor of an armed police contingent on the campus of his alma mater.
Buttigieg’s path to the nomination is already difficult, but it will become even more so if and when big-name players like Biden enter the fray. Still, Buttigieg is a charismatic candidate, and he’s already endearing himself to donors and influential members of the party like Axelrod and former D.N.C. chair Howard Dean. In a political moment like no other, Buttigieg—much like Beto O’Rourke and Sherrod Brown—is betting that what may once have been considered shortcomings could be strengths. “I’m not like the others,” he told The Atlantic. “And that’s going to be really important.”
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